Natural Drivers Or Human Activity?

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SWBAT express and justify their thought on the primary cause(s) for the increase in Earth's temperatures over the last century.

Big Idea

Students love to argue so why not harness that in the name of science? Students apply their argumentation skills (SP7) as they determine their opinion on the causes of climate change.


20 minutes

Note: Ideally, this lesson should be used after students have had a day or two to research the drivers of climate change for the lesson How Did This Happen but prior to its conclusion. is a site that gives free DVDs (one per year) to teachers who create a free account as long as you provide feedback on the video, which literally takes less than 5 minutes to complete. I don't like all of the videos I have chosen, but the one used for this lesson, Unstoppable Solar Cycles, is really good at generating debate among the students.

I feel like I should point out that I completely disagree with the message behind this video, that the sun is the primary driver of climate change; however, that is what makes this video a great resource. As students conduct their research, almost all of what they will find argues that human activity, specifically in regard to greenhouse gases, is the main cause of climate change - there is no shortage of information on this topic. Unstoppable Solar Cycles is a great resource to use to introduce students to the real debate behind climate change: what is the cause?

To begin this lesson, I first have students work in small groups to generate a list of factors that, according to their research, seem to play a role in climate change and to break that list into 2 parts: human causes and natural causes.

I then explain that the video we are going to watch presents an argument about solar cycles being primarily responsible for climate change. As students watch the video, which is a little over 13 minutes long, I have them complete the Argument-Evidence Handout to keep track of the new information.


60 minutes

Following the video I break students into smaller groups of 4-6 students per group (this size is small enough to keep everyone on task but large enough to inspire debate/discussion within the groups). Ideally, the groups should be a mixture of students who believe the message of the video and those who believe that humans are responsible (anthropogenic causes). If this is not the case, I assign the two strongest students in the group to argue the perspective of the video.

As before, the following is written from the captain of the space ship's perspective.

Did I understand that correctly?  Are they saying that the sun might be responsible for everything that is happening on Earth? Just so I am clear, can some of you restate the argument that video just made and the evidence used to support this argument?

At this point I call on a few students and have them share what they documented on the Argument-Evidence handout as they viewed the video.

It seems to me that we have some decisions to make - but you are the smart ones, tell me if my thinking is correct.  In order to know what we need to consider as we design out new society on this new Earth, we need to determine the most likely cause(s) of this mess...we need to plan differently if the sun is responsible then if human activity caused this mess, right?  

Your task is to work in your small groups and actively debate this issue until you develop one perspective that you can fully defend. Use research when you have to but don't forget all you have learned up to this point. We need the facts people! Challenge each other, ask questions, verify your thinking - you need to take this seriously so we make the right decisions with our society. You can approach this in many ways but if you need some help getting started you can begin with the following prompts:

  • What evidence do we have that changes in solar cycles impact climate?
  • How does "the other side" refute (respond to) this evidence?
  • What evidence do we have that human activity (greenhouse gases) impact climate?
  • How does "the other side" refute this evidence?
  • What is your opinion? What evidence have you collected that makes you feel that way?


As students work it is important to monitor (and participate in) their discussions so students are supported and stay on task. These are difficult questions and if students feel overwhelmed they are more likely to look busy than to actually be busy. To further assist and support students, I tape a copy of the Supporting Arguments With Evidence Handout to each table to remind students of what they are supposed to be doing during this time; if students appear to be struggling, I refer them to this chart to see if they are accomplishing the "What it looks like" criteria.


20 minutes

Once students have finished their research and discussion, I have each group complete a CER chart prior to making their final presentation statements.

Because this unit has us role playing a research mission in space, I ask students to phrase their presentation statements (their belief of the causes for the state of the Earth with supporting evidence) as if they are military scientists addressing their captain. Something along the lines of "Sir, it is our belief that...for the following reasons...."  Each group presents their findings and we will take the position of the majority as we move forward with the design a society project.